March Of The Geophytes
It could be the title for a low budget B Movie, but in this case, the Geophytes referred to in the title are garden bulbs, tubers and plants that experience periods of dormancy during the year.
Horticulturally speaking, the new year is traditionally observed with the arrival of flowering spring bulbs, which lighten up what can otherwise be, drab and fairly lifeless spaces in our gardens. The relatively quiet flowering period between January and March may be marred by freezing temperatures and occasionally snow covered ground; these resilient and short season powerhouses make every effort to break through frozen ground, claw through snow and to open flower when the sun catches their petals. For that reason alone, they would be worthwhile additions to any garden, but in light of the absence of most other flowering plants; particularly herbaceous perennials, bulbs are a vital source of colour during the winter. Often forgotten about in planting schemes, or added as an afterthought in designed spaces, we rarely give bulbs the respect they deserve as showcase plants that aren’t greedy for space.
Their ability to come up from beneath the ground, flower, dieback and let other plants take their place, only to return and do the same year on year is a wonderful gift to the gardener. Their resilience as plants capable of competing with lawns is particularly helpful as they can change the complexion of a landscape or garden providing masses of colour against a green foil.
If we look then at some of the earliest delights of the garden and landscape, we can quickly see just how prized these plants are in our gardens.
Galanthus (Snowdrops) in conjunction with Eranthis (Winter Aconites) are traditionally considered to be the ‘Harbingers of Spring’, as their presence indicates the lengthening of daylight hours and the approach of warmer weather. To Galanthophiles (Snowdrop Collectors/Fanatics/Obsessives), the cold winter months are well worth the wait and over a thousand cultivars of Galanthus are now available through collectors groups and specialist plant shows, showing tremendous diversity in the Genus. Though there are very affordable varieties out there, avid collectors are not averse to paying big money (£1,000 for one bulb is not unknown) for the newest and choicest introductions. Ignoring the huge variety, the commonly available species of Galanthus nivalis, elwesii, plicatus and woronowii are well worth growing at little expense as an early reminder of spring change and for the delight of their flowers and foliage partnering winter aconites and Hellebores. Galanthus nivalis is robust enough to be ‘naturalised’ in the lawn, with the only requisite consideration being that you must not cut the lawn until bulb foliage has died down naturally.
There are a number of other early bulbs that follow on from the delightful Galanthus and Eranthis, many of which are sadly forgotten about in the presence of ever popular Narcissus (Daffodils) and later Tulipa (Tulips). A few worthwhile considerations from a substantive list of options would include; Chionodoxa, Scilla, Hyacinthus, Crocus, Anemone, Cyclamen.
Chionodoxa forbesii is rarely planted in lawns, but has proven itself surprisingly capable in a large lawn planting at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, where it has been an impressive presence every spring since its 2001 planting. It is a wonderful little bulb that enlivens the front of borders, pots and other planted spaces.
Scilla, like Chionodoxa are commonly banded into a group called ‘Little Blue Bulbs’ in the trade. Useful and vibrantly coloured, often with scent, though it may not carry very far especially to cold nostrils!
The popularity of Hyacinths (Hyacinthus) waxes and wanes with the decades. Once ever present in public plantings and revered for their heady scent, they now, rarely feature in displays with some gardeners using them in a pot or front of a border, but with little commitment to quantity. When used well, they are substantial and impressive flowers in rich colours, with even richer aromas. A number of new varieties have been introduced in the last decade and I am, myself, trying ‘Midnight Mystic’ in my garden for the first time this year. Famous as the blackest Hyacinth in the world, the original bulbs sold for a phenomenal £150,000 in 1997 to the nursery that started distributing their divisions in 2005, though it has never been very widely available and sells out each year. That’s a lot to live up to, so we will see if it is as impressive as its original price tag suggests it should be.
Crocus remain ever popular with a wide range of colours, patterns and sizes available. In terms of naturalising in lawns, few bulbs do better and the comically named Crocus tommasinianus is by far the best for naturalising in lawns. This species also has the advantage of being able to grow in shadier spots than most bulbs can cope with.
Anemone is a diverse genus of plants with a wide range of sizes and flowering times. Anemone blanda, nemorosa and De Caen hybrids constitute much of the early spring offering available to gardeners and they are easy going, colourful plants. The De Caen hybrids are large flowered, blousy and intensely coloured small mound forming plants. Anemone blanda and nemorosa and their cultivars are primarily blue or white in colour and carpet the ground of deciduous woodland across the UK in spring. Very easy to grow and quick to bulk up, their delicate appearance belies their true resilience.
Cyclamen coum is the reliably hardy spring flowering species for growing outdoors in the UK and like its Autumn flowering cousin C. hederifolium, is very variable in colour and leaf pattern. Easy to grow, with corms steadily increasing in size over the years, it is free seeding and the variability in colour, size, leaf and flower make for an interesting tapestry of colour and texture when it establishes.
With a little forethought and commitment to quantity, bulbs can bring great colour and interest to any garden or landscape. Be bold, be brave! Commit to the future and breathe life into planted spaces to help the spring arrive.